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(Author's note: While the "gee-whiz" factor ought to be diminishing after a decade of dealing with digital music, I'm in absolute raptures discovering a large number of concerts from the 2007 North Sea Jazz Festival available as free streaming audio from their website. Anyone smart enough to use Google can find something like Audio Hijack that will convert them to MP3s for use on an iPod or whatever.)
It takes a lot to make one of the world's largest jazz festivals anti-climactic.
The inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise arrived in Rotterdam on July 13, just in time for the 900 passengers who've spent the past eight days being saturated in music and Scandinavian port stops to attend the three- day North Sea Jazz Festival. Most had positive things to say about the festival, except for excessive heat possibly caused by ventilation problems the final day. But speaking personally as a multi-time festival attendee who's seen many of the featured performers up close for more than a week aboard the ship, mingling among 90,000 others trying to jam their way into seats from from the stage didn't have the same appeal.
Also, using Holland America Line's Rotterdam as lodging was a massive blessing that saved hours of travel many festival-goers endure daily, but the atmosphere onboard was very much that of winding down. For some that actually was a blessing, as organizers, crew and musicians sometimes working nearly round- the-clock in the contained setting of a 778-foot ship finally could relax and reflect on what worked and what needs improvement next time.
"This is the first time we've ever done anything like this in conjunction with the festival," said Michael Lazaroff, executive director of Jazz Cruises LLC, at the beginning of the featured concert with McCoy Tyner on Day 8 in the main theater. The company organizes several cruises in the Bahamas each year, but was in new waters with a new approach to the bands for this voyage and "obviously not everything was perfect"
"It was wonderful," a woman in the audience shouted out, getting a robust round of concurring applause that kept Lazaroff from finishing his apology.
Comments from passengers were nearly all positive about major aspects of the cruise such as the musician lineup and activities, although there were a range of complaints and suggestions about smaller things ranging from imprecise scheduling to poor logistics for shuttle buses to town while in port. For organizers who spent the trip trying to avoid a meltdownalmost literallyfrom electrical problems on ship that was still repairing flooding damage from an Antarctic storm, the lack of any major problems affecting passengers made the trip an overwhelming success.
"I was on fire and didn't know it," said Gary Baldassari, production manager for Jazz Cruises. He said relatively minor adjustments such as more staff and backup gear will help future such cruises go smoother, even if the basic challenge of hosting a larger roster of bands who are frequently progressive in nature and therefore have more complex demands than most of the company's trips remains.
"There's always music at sea, but nothing like the intensity of what we played here," he said.
Muddying The Waters
"Amsterdam to party, The Hague to live, Rotterdam to work," is a common saying in The Netherlands, but the North Sea Jazz Festival is part of an urban renewal effort somewhat at odds with Rotterdam's pride in its productivity.
Residents tend to scoff at Amsterdam's play-loose-and-hard mentality (and if the feeling by the partiers about a city of workaholics isn't mutual I'll eat my iPod), but they're clearly happy accepting the money the festival has generated since moving here from The Hague in 2006. One surprise was learning the cruisers aren't necessarily a welcome part of the influx.
"This is the third goddam trip to the terminal," said Ron, a Rotterdam taxi driver for more than 20 years, when I climbed into his car after Day 1 of the festival. "It's unreal."
Ron, whose last name I'm omitting to keep him out of trouble, launched into his tirade after my seemingly innocent inquiry of "how's business?" He said fares to the terminal are about "10 ($14), compared to "65- "85 ($90-$120) for The Hague and "140-185 ($195-$260) for Amsterdam. Staggering as those fares are, there's invariably a huge line at the taxi stand coming out of the festival, even if most of the plebes rely on much cheaper tram/train combinations that typically take two- to three-hours. (Mercifully, daytime fares to the Amsterdam airport booked with the cruise line are "only" $100).